Arun Sudhaman 25 Feb 2011 // 12:00AM GMT
LONDON: Escalating unrest in several Middle Eastern countries is sparking growing interest in the role PR agencies are playing on behalf of the region’s beleaguered governments. Facing particular scrutiny is the Government of Bahrain, which has retained Bell Pottinger for the past two years. The agency appears to have expanded its role since first being appointed to promote investment in the country; over the past week, it emerged that Bell Pottinger has helped set up a media centre to help journalists cover protests within the country. Bell Pottinger CEO Paul Bell confirmed that the agency represents Bahrain’s Economic Development Board (EDB) but declined to comment further, stating that the agency did not discuss its work for clients. Last year, The Guardian claimed that PR firms were making London the world capital of reputation laundering. Lobbyists in Washington DC, meanwhile, have also seen their work on behalf of foreign governments examined in detail. The launch of the media centre has attracted criticism among journalists, after a BBC producer was held for 15 hours at Bahrain International Airport. However, a source familiar with the situation said that the development represents a “highly atypical” response, “in the context of the region”. “This is unfamiliar territory,” said the source. “Governments in this region are used to controlling information. This has been a very credible response by the government of Bahrain, and highly atypical in the context of the region.” “What people assume with PR agencies is their real business is burying the truth,” continued the source. “Not so – this is where you step out with as much real information as you can provide. It is the kind of thing you expect to see from a full-fledged democracy” Mass protests are continuing in Bahrain today, after authorities released 308 political prisoners. The unrest has seen Bahrain’s credit rating downgraded but the Gulf Arab kingdom’s central bank governor Rasheed al-Marak has insisted there has been “no indication of major capital flight.” In the US, State Department filings reveal that PR counsel for Bahrain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is subcontracted by Bell Pottinger to Washington DC lobbying firm Qorvis. Meanwhile, the Holmes Report understands that last month Edelman New York began handling Bahrain’s EDB brief in the US. Qorvis, one of DC’s leading lobbying firms, also represents the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Equatorial Guinea. Another DC consultancy, The Livingston Group, has previously represented Libya. According to this story, Bell Pottinger also handled some work for the Government of Egypt last year. Bell confirmed that his firm is no longer handling any Egyptian assignments of this nature. It has also emerged that the firm is representing exiled Libyan royal Muhammad Al-Senussi, the country’s crown prince. Bell Pottinger is one of a number of agencies that retain lucrative Middle East government contracts. Abu Dhabi’s Executive Affairs Authority retains Edelman as its primary PR agency, while Hill & Knowlton works Egypt’s IT Industry Development Agency and its General Authority for Foreign investment. Financial agencies such as Brunswick, FD and Citigate are also particularly active, handling assignments for the various financial centres and investment vehicles that are government-owned.